Next week’s total solar eclipse isn’t just a chance to see a cool natural phenomenon, it’s a rare opportunity for all kinds of science experiments. The path of a total solar eclipse hasn’t touched the US since 1979. Sure, there’ll be another solar eclipse in 2019, but it’ll mostly be over the Pacific Ocean.
NASA is obviously taking the lead with the research and is even sending bacteria into the sky with balloons. Lots of other science organizations are also taking advantage of the event to do some science exploration. Here are some of the most interesting experiments that will take place as the sky grows dark across the country.
Making the eclipse movie
Millions of Americans will be watching the eclipse, and that includes volunteers from national labs and education groups that will track it as it moves along its path. Each of the groups in this project — called the Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) Experiment — have an identical telescope. They’ll be using the telescopes to record the eclipse continuously and create not only a full dataset of when and where it passed, but a 90-minute movie of the whole thing. Just in case the live stream wasn’t enough.
Measuring the sound of the eclipse
There will be many, many photos of the eclipse, but college students at Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University will be measuring its sound. In partnership with NASA, college students will set up low-frequency radio experiments in bean fields near the site of the eclipse. They’ll capture and observe the radio noise that the eclipse creates, and figure out how it’s different from normal conditions.
“The reason we chose that spot is not because I love bringing a camp toilet and tent with me,” Dennis Gallagher, a NASA physicist who is supervising the experiment, told Decatur Daily. “It’s because it is more than a mile away from electrical power, and that’s where we need to be to do this type of observation.”
Who let the dogs out?
Humans aren’t the only ones affected by the eclipse. At APSU (which happens to be near the eclipse’s center of total darkness), two scientists will be watching how crickets and cows act when the sky goes dark as the Moon covers the Sun.
This isn’t the first study done on animal behavior during the eclipse, and the APSU scientists aren’t the only ones. The results, however, vary. During one 1991 solar eclipse, spiders were seen taking down their webs. Then again, during a 1999 eclipse, scientists watched 12 cows and they didn’t do much of anything. Maybe the cows this time around will be a little more flustered.
Protecting our tech from solar flares
One important thing we might learn from the eclipse: how to protect our technology from solar flares.
Solar flares happen when the Sun’s magnetic field causes a brief burst of intense radiation. Flares are natural, but they can cause disturbances on Earth, especially with power transmission or radio frequencies. One such flare in 1989 even caused a blackout in Québec. The problem is, the magnetic field is hard to measure because the Sun is so bright.
During the eclipse, the Moon will cover the Sun completely, giving us a good view of the Sun’s outer atmosphere. So one group is going to use this opportunity to take some measurements from Casper Mountain in Wyoming. Hopefully this new information will give us a leg up when it comes to predicting the next solar flare, and taking the necessary precautions with our tech.
Following the eclipse from up high
Most of us are stuck watching the eclipse from the ground, but some lucky researchers will be following the eclipse from two NASA airplanes at 50,000 feet. They are especially interested in getting views of Mercury. Most of the time, we can’t really see the planet because of the position of the Sun. But during the eclipse, the view should be clear, and it could help us learn more about the surface of our closest neighbor.
If you’re not an actual scientist, don’t worry: there are plenty of citizen science initiatives, too. You can download the GLOBE app, for instance, and take your own eclipse measurements to send to NASA. Or you can tell scientists how animals are behaving during the eclipse by using the iNaturalist app. So to participate in research, you just have to be an observer.